U.S. holiday celebrated on November 11, to commemorate all military veterans. Originated as Armistice Day, which celebrated the end of World War I, but the name was changed in 1954 so that the veterans of more recent wars would also be included.

My dad was a Vietnam veteran. He was in the first infantry division, The Big Red One. He was a Chaplain's assistant and a radio man in Lai Khe. In seventh grade I tape recorded an interview with him for my social studies class. We sat on our guacamole colored tweed pull out couch and he told me some stories.

He told me a story about going into a lookout tower with another soldier with a tub full of beer. They had to be up there for twenty four hours. They got drunk, nothing bad happened.

Another story was when he was on lookout one night and a black panther crossed his path. He told me,

“It was so dark, you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. I heard leaves crunching and I held still with my gun cocked. Two eyes passed me and could hear my heart pounding. Then it passed.”

He told me about Fast Eddie and Doc and where everybody was from and how Doc still owed him twenty bucks.

At one point my mom gave him a questionnaire about post Vietnam stress disorder and it sat on our dishwasher for months. My Dad never went out on the 4th of July.

Over the years he told me things like how he learned to drive a stick shift there on a Jeep, or how many potatoes he peeled. Mostly the glaze that went over his eyes was one of loss. Regret for feeling.

He told me that I would make a good tunnel rat. Jungle heat and his arch nemesis mosquitos were other topics. Secrecy was the last one.

I’ll refrain from distributing the now discarded and disposed of documents that trail my father’s life. I’ll only tell you this:

Sometimes at night when I am drunk, I take his dog tags still seeped in jungle juice and place the beaded chain around my neck. I think about the first night he came home from ‘Nam, years before I was born. The night he had a welcome home party at my Aunt Pat’s house down the street from the house his father built. I think about how he ate a loaf of white bread with a pound of fried bologna and drank fifth of Jack Daniels, sitting in a kitchen chair and pinching his forearm all night long saying.


A year after my father died, I was digging in my boyhood basement for artifacts of my youth, I found his old fatigue shirt.

At some point in my youth, I asked my father if he had brought back a gun from Vietnam. He was concerned and irritated. He looked at me close, holding my shoulder and said,

“The only thing I brought back with me was me and the clothes on my back.”

The fatigue shirt is typical olive green, covered in drips of paint. The patch of the big red one on the left shoulder and a triangle with a black cross on one front breast pocket and our name over the other. It is growing thin.

Men my father’s age look close at me when I’m wearing the shirt. Most nod or look straight into my eyes. One has pointed to me. These are Veterans too. They all seem to know that I didn’t get the shirt at a thrift store. I always smile at them and hold my head high and I might wave or guide the dog their way. Sometimes, they talk to me and I ask them when they were over and I tell them about my Dad. I meander away with eye leak. Missing my Father and mourning for the men that I meet, their survival, their bounce with death.

I spent my Veterans' Day 2009 collecting hostile fire pay. I happened to be the lone American with a bunch of Brits, Aussies, and French. Unbeknown to many Americans, they ("they" meaning "The Allies" from WWII) also celebrate the same holiday, but they know it as Armistice Day or Remembrance Day.

I was allowed to participate in their ceremony because, though I am American, nationality only mattered to the extent that some of the Frenchmen couldn't understand the English bits of the ceremony, and nobody else understood the French bits. We were all Veterans, and we were there to honor each other and our fallen brothers all the way back up through the ages. Technically, the holiday celebrates veterans from WWI and later, but since when do technicalities rule the roost? Likely that technicality is to avoid banged up feelings from the Brits, who I am sure would rather not celebrate American Veterans from 1784 - 1815.

It wasn't a particularly long ceremony, as far as military formations go. The time wasn't important, it was the idea that was significant: Men who are all part of a horrible little club, coming together because it is important to all of us to acknowledge this mutual bond. We needed no spoken words but got them anyway, in the form of a presiding chaplain and some very eloquent high-ranking officers.

I was the only American, and there was a brief debate on how to handle that. Each other contingent had their own group in the formation, and I would have looked awfully out of place as the formation commander for a squad of none. The gruff Colour Sergeant in command of the British group suggested we agree to disagree on the revolution and I lump in with their lot. There were no objections, so I found my place in formation. We were in big blocks by nationality, each block facing the flagpole bearing that nation's standard. At the base of each flagpole was a flag detail, ready to raise the flags to full mast at the appropriate time. The Stars and Stripes was thankfully right next to the Union Jack, so I didn't look like a goofy motherfucker with a crooked head trying to salute the wrong flag, even if that's exactly what I was.

We pinned our hearts to those flags, and let little pieces slip out on our breath like shards of glass. We pondered our predecessors and we pondered ourselves. There was a moment of silence during which I was struck with a question:

What do I do with this?

Will I carry this moment around with me for the rest of my life, knowing that only a very few would truly know it as I did? Did every generation of veterans carry this burden of shared experience, each wondering anew what to do with it? How many times would I roll these rocks up the hill so I could chase them down?

There are a few times in each life where one in confronted with an enormity. Sometimes this enormity falls neatly into a place that previously had only been filled academically, like knowing the word "love" and then feeling it, and assigning the experience to the name. Or that moment of sudden understanding the link between algebra and calculus, or a sudden insight into human nature. These are great revelations and should be treasured.

Sometimes, this enormity falls into a place where there is no space for it, and it can't be assigned or categorized or assimilated. You're left feeling full and restless, but hungry for answers and explanations. Incommunicable and inconsolable. Years and experience erode only the sharpest edges, but never enough to forget. These enormities should be equally treasured, but they won't help one grasp the depth of a sonnet, or see the beauty in an equation, or grasp the intricacies of political intrigue. They are a thing of brooding introspection. They lay you open to yourself in ways that drugs or interrogators or therapists cannot. They change the way you resonate, and they change who you are.

And while I moved through the motions as they were called out by the Colour Sergeant, conscious of how strange my American drill movements looked among the British unit that adopted me, I realized suddenly that even that didn't matter. We stood differently, we moved differently, we saluted differently, but it all meant the same thing:

Brothers, I'm here.

I understand.

I will remember.

It's Veterans Day, 2011. I'm seeing a lot of e-mails about the free meals being handed out by various chain restaurants and hearing radio ads, ditto. I'm sure if I watched TV any more I'd be seeing ads about this as well. If you think I'm griping about it, though, you're wrong. If Applebee's and Chili's and Famous Dave's and Outback want to demonstrate their patriotism and their support for the military by feeding veterans and active duty troops, well, more power to 'em. It's all good.

Me, I'm going to burn my own food at home, because to be honest, I don't think I have any business getting in on any of that action. Every Veteran's Day reminds me of the fact that I was a pretty crappy soldier: lazy, stubborn, and too slow on the uptake to get the multiple none-too-subtle suggestions to GTFO. This will come as no surprise to anyone reading my nodes about my time in the Army. I was a peacetime soldier of the Cold War; most of my career was spent in the National Guard and Army Reserve, and I never saw the elephant. I never got any kind of awards or decorations, which is fine since I didn't do anything to rate any kind of merit or valor-based award. I finished my career with an involuntary transfer to the Individual Ready Reserve because my weight had gotten way too far out of hand, which I guess was an appropriately inglorious end to an undistinguished career.

Now, I'm aware that most of us who put on the uniform never see combat; my father is a good example of that, having spent twenty-two years in the Air Force and missed out on both Korea and Vietnam. Still, when he retired, he did so with a rather respectable collection of fruit salad, including one not normally awarded to enlisted men. Likewise, my Uncle Joe spent two tours in Vietnam with the Special Forces and retired after putting in his thirty. Next to that, my lengthy record of...going to drill once a month and to annual training in the summer doesn't seem like much, especially to me.

So, yeah...staying home and burning my own food today. There's plenty of other veterans and active duty military around these parts who deserve it a lot more.

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